Full or partial: the RSS debate

 

Though it is a relatively new technology, RSS has already drastically altered online news distribution. It provides content owners with a cost-efficient way to track subscriptions and readership and offers users a simple way to stay on top of their favorite sites, all from in one place.

This ability to directly connect content creators and subscribers has been a boon for journalists. Nearly every major news organization provides RSS feeds as part of their online presence and many, including The Guardian, offer dozens of feeds targeted at different niches.

However, a debate has emerged about how to best use this technology and exactly how much content should be put in the feed. It is an issue that bloggers debate endlessly and a challenge that is going to face all journalists as they try to leverage the Web while protecting their hard work.

How RSS Works

RSS stands for either Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary depending on which version is being used. However, all versions work on the same principles.

An RSS feed is essentially a specially-formatted Web page that is designed to be read not by Web browser, but an

RSS reader. An RSS reader works, in many ways, like an email client, regularly checking feeds for new content and presenting it to the user in a manner they can easily browse through.

This enables the users to remain up to date on their favorite sites without leaving their RSS reader. They can mark stories as read, organize feeds into folders and visit the Web site directly from the feed. Content creators get a direct line of communication with their readers, one that is vastly superior to bulk email, can better track their readership and even open up new monetization opportunities.

But while there is little denying the power, convenience and potential of RSS, the Internet has been sharply divided over how to use the technology. The hottest debate pits those who are hesitant to put all of their content into RSS feeds, versus those who insist upon it.

Partial vs. Full Feeds

RSS subscribers, generally, strongly prefer full feeds. It is much more convenient for them to be able to read the full article without having to click through to the site. Furthermore, some truncated, or partial, feeds display so little of the story that they can’t fully understand what the article is about.

Because of this many heavy RSS users refuse to subscribe to

partial feeds and others admit to reading partial feeds less.

However, offering a full RSS feed carries many risks. First, there is a fear that readers of full feeds will not click through to the site since there is nothing to compel them.

Second, there is a risk of content theft and plagiarism associated with offering full feeds. Since RSS feeds were designed to be easily parsed by computers, unscrupulous individuals have started taking RSS feeds, removing the content from the, a process known as

scraping, and reposting the content on their own site. Using a partial feed can greatly reduce that risk.

Finally, a full RSS feed requires greater bandwidth and resources than a partial one, especially if it includes images or video clips. While this is not a major issue for smaller sites, ones with large numbers of subscribers will notice an increase in cost.

But while there is no hard right or wrong answer to the partial vs. full feed debate, it seems as most news companies have already made up their minds.

What News Organizations Are Doing

To see what news organizations were doing, I took a quick survey of ten of the most popular news sites from both Europe and the United States, including

The New York Times, CNN, The BBC,

Reuters, the Agence France-Presse among others.

Of them all ten used RSS feeds in some way as part of their online presence. However, all ten of them also used partial feeds, most displaying just a few words from the article itself.

None of the sites monetized their RSS feeds in any way though some offered links to allow users to email articles they found interesting directly from their RSS reader.

In short, it appears that the large news organizations have decided, unanimously, that the dangers of full feeds outweigh the benefits and that they are going to control their content.

However, this may present an opportunity for smaller news companies to offer a service their larger counterparts do not.

Whether they will take the gamble and seize upon the opportunity in a meaningful way remains to be seen.

Conclusions

Whether it is in the format of a partial feed or a full one, RSS feeds are a force that can not be ignored. Current users demand them and more and more people start subscribing to them every day. The power and impact of RSS is only going to grow.

The time to formulate your RSS strategy is now, while the technology is still young and many of the future RSS users are yet to discover it.

Most likely, it is only a matter of a few years before the technology is established and those without RSS strategies are left to play catchup.